Biography of the Guadalupano Ex-Voto

Reception: March 13, 2017

Acceptance: April 20, 2017

Las transformaciones de los exvotos pictográficos guadalupanos (1848-1999)

Margarita Zires, 2014 Iberoamericana Vervuert, Spain, 342 pp.

This book contains seven chapters, five by sole authorship and two in collaboration with other authors. From its lines, students of pictorial and narrative discourses can learn from the different tools appropriate by Margarita and her collaborators to find different answers to what the votive offerings express and communicate, transcending the motivations of the faithful and believers.

This book has the quality of being generous with popular history, by including a CD with the images of the votive offerings that belong to the Basilica of Guadalupe, with which it leaves a historical testimony of the invaluable iconographic material that allows studying the transformations in a long period of time of devotional cultures, personal afflictions, ways of representing the divine and the earthly, artistic codes of authors and eras, variety of aesthetic styles, classification structures that allow us to address interactions between the holy and the profane. In short, the collection of photographed and digitized votive offerings gives us open and free access to a wealth of knowledge and representations that can be analyzed to understand the history of popular Catholic sentiment in Mexico over a century and a half.

The votive offerings are pictographic materials that were made to ask, thank and witness the miraculous power (Faser, 2000), in this case of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Its ritual practice is carried out within a system of votive practices that occur in the system of the Catholic popular religion. But in addition to this original meaning, votive offerings have been valued by collectors and art lovers as aesthetic works (the Frida Kalho collection accounts for this), but they have also been considered by anthropologists and historians as period testimonies (see works by Patricia Arias and Jorge Durand, 2003). In this book, Margarita Zires takes them up as social texts that can be interpreted and analyzed as discursive genres.

Margarita Zires, as a good communicator, carefully photographed a total of 1 094 exvotos in the collection of the museum of the Guadalupana Basilica. Later he cataloged them distinguishing traditional from non-traditional, ancient from modern. Then, he ordered them chronologically (from the oldest dated 1848 to those of the late 20th century) and categorized them thematically, recognizing 40 fields. Later, he selected a corpus to carry out particular analyzes that were adapted to the study of varied subjects. In addition, he recognized types of rhetoric, different materialities, recurring themes, artistic styles of the times, imaginaries and expressive forms. The methodology that the researcher followed is exhaustive. But the most surprising thing was that Margarita was able to read in the sequence of votive offerings the affectations of modernity and its subsequent secularization. The methodical observation of the votive offerings was a source of theorizing to establish a hypothesis that matches that of the most prestigious sociologist of contemporary religion; I am referring to Danièle Hervieu-Léger (2004), who, like Zires, stated that with modernity the ecclesial presence was weakened, at the same time that the individuation of the ways of believing and practicing religion was growing. The two reached similar conclusions, Hervieu-Léger by analyzing surveys, and Zires by analyzing the enunciation of painted plates. From there, it also manages to contravene the sociological theories of religion that posited the causality that, with greater industrialization and urbanization, a decline in religion would be experienced (Wilson, 1966); when what the votive offerings showed was that these phenomena led to the transformations and variations of votive practices, but not to their disappearance or disuse.

The votive offering has been transforming throughout its history. First, by modifying its materiality, arriving in the present to replace the sheet with snapshots. What does last is that the ex-Voto continues to be a testimony of faith and gratitude for the miracle received and, therefore, seeks to generate credibility in the different ways of confirming the miracle. Through her analysis, the researcher managed to detect the recurring themes in which the Virgin of Guadalupe intercedes to perform miracles. For example, he specializes in curing diseases, delivering delicate surgeries and surviving serious accidents (falls, run over, crashes, even shipwrecks). The Virgin also appears in the altarpieces accompanying and helping those who suffer as a result of injustices, either to free them from prisons or to return alive after battles, revolutions and wars. The Guadalupana is not asked or thanked for helping the migration, as the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos is (Calvo, 2001).

The forms of pictorial narration of dramas express social conventions or metonymies, which are used to narrate the miracle inserted in the scenes of daily life: a disease is represented by a bed; a surgery or accidents express the drama capturing the moment of the fall. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appears in most of the traditional votive offerings establishing a bridge between what is separate, but at the same time it establishes a marked distinction between the heavenly and supernatural planes and the earthly world where tragedies take place. Margarita Zires and Yael Merino tell us, in the introduction to chapter 4, that

The votive offering narrates miracles obtained and, to a lesser extent, requested. Its main function is to bear witness to a supernatural fact, it is to proclaim the immense power of a religious figure, in this case the Virgin of Guadalupe; it is telling that someone else has been helped, it is telling that someone else has been chosen by her. However, the votive offering is not limited to them. When telling miracles, he narrates other types of events at the same time: he tells stories of daily life and the mishaps suffered by the devotee of the Virgin; In some votive offerings you can see how historical events have affected the life of the believer (p. 159).

However, the authors are interested in giving an account of the history of mentalities and at the same time detecting the genres and discursive rules with which they are narrated to produce drama, either with the resource of visual metonymies or with the textual resources that appear in the adjectives present in the legends of the votive offerings. For example, the diachronic study of the transformations of the ex-vow allows us to verify that the times mark different concerns, showing that modernity introduces new anguishes that have to do with the need to achieve social advancement through studies and professional success; or the way in which means of transport cause new daily dangers.

The last chapter, 6, is written in collaboration with Cecilia Penasetti; It highlights the graphic, typographic and narrative mediations between the votive offering and photography, which includes new styles and votive objects: bureaucratic speeches (for example, certificates), newspapers and magazines, cinema, television and even comics , which influence the changes experienced by the most contemporary votive offerings in their need to generate verisimilitude. In this line, they reposition the theory of secularization that permeates the sphere of the religious world, less and less autonomous and differentiated from the media and cultural industries, because as the authors point out, “new communication technologies continue to impact them. , contributing to its transformation and social redefinition ”(p. 309).

The content of this book would allow us to continue to abound in the richness of the votive offerings as communicative materiality for the study of the daily history of Mexicans, of the anxieties and problems that the Catholic faithful experience according to the times, of the ways of asking and be grateful for miracles, mentalities, popular ways of communicating, and the regimes that modulate the ways of narrating, capturing and above all making the miracle credible. I am sure that the multiple analytical edges that Margarita and her collaborators exercise in the book will respond to various concerns of those who enter the pleasure of reading and contemplating the pages of this wonderful book.


Arias, Patricia y Jorge Durand (2002). La enferma eterna. Mujer y exvoto en México, siglos XIX y XX. Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara.

Calvo , Thomas (2001). “México en un espejo. Los exvotos de San Juan de los Lagos (1870-1945). Textos de Thomas Calvo” Historia Mexicana, vol. LI, núm. 1, México: El Colegio de México, pp. 198-201.

Faser, Gloria (2000). “El arte de la devoción”. Artes de México, núm. 53, pp. 8-23.

Hervieu-Léger, Danièle (2004). El peregrino y el convertido. La religión en movimiento. México: Ediciones del Helénico.

Wilson, Bryan (1966). “La religión en la sociedad secular”, en Roland Robertson (comp.), Sociología de la religión. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, pp. 127-137.


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